The Study of Muslims in South Asia

by Barbara D. Metcalf
a talk at the University of California at Santa Barbara
December 2, 2005
[presented here through the generous permission of the author]

        In talking about the study of Muslims in South Asia on the part of recent generations of scholars, I want to illustrate one theme, in part by focusing on the kind of sources that scholars have used over time. My very use of the word “sources” with Ainslie [[Embree]] in the room, of course, immediately leads one to think of him and, in general, of Columbia’s enormous influence on the humanities fields of South Asian Studies through their editions of  “Sources” of Asian traditions. Indeed Ainslie himself edited the first volume of the second edition of Sources of Indian Traditions (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), one that probably all of us here have used in our teaching. Noting that the new edition was an “improved” version, Bob Frykenberg, writing in 1988, spoke for many when he said, “For over thirty years, anyone seriously interested in India has always had to keep a copy of this classic within arm's reach. Sources of Indian Tradition is so useful – as a reference work, sourcebook, or textbook – that it has been indispensable to scholars all over the world.” That “thirty” is now well on its way to “fifty.” Ainslie in fact was also key to putting another important source, Alberuni's India (New York: Norton), an edited version of Sachau's translation, into American classrooms in 1971, also early on. And his encouragement and editing of a one-volume version of Shaikh Muhammad Ikram’s three-volume Urdu trilogy, published as Muslim Civilization in India, again was an invaluable resource, particularly in the early years – this was 1964 – when the study of India was just taking off in this country. And these three are not the only relevant source collections he has been involved in, I might add.

        What is significant about these volumes and their approach to the study of Islam in India? Ikram himself struck several important themes in the preface to his own early volume. First, he rightly noted, a particular value of his volume – and this is true of al-Biruni and the “Sources” volumes as well – was to question the undue emphasis on Arabs, expanded at most to Persian and Ottoman contexts, for the study of what he called “Muslim civilization” – at the expense of huge populations of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia, and the Indian diaspora throughout the world. “For several centuries,” as he noted, “Islam dominated the subcontinent….” and produced a “civilization… full of great achievements,” leaving “a rich cultural heritage.” Arguably, however, even more significant than providing new materials for Islamicists, these volumes made it more possible to include Muslims in teaching and thinking about India than otherwise would have been possible. This was particularly important given that most India specialists had little interest in South Asian Islam or the Muslim population. Many scholars, like most citizens of India, were in fact burdened by a range of ambivalent, even negative, feelings about Muslims as well as about Islam.

        Aside from documenting “Muslim civilization,” Ikram advanced a theme to characterize that “heritage.” “The history of Muslim rule in India, he suggested in his preface, “[was] the story of Islam in a predominantly non-Muslim environment [which] led to conflicts, tensions, and assimilations….” (Ikram 1964: xx). Later in the book he went on to say:

    This peculiar situation has resulted in developments which distinguish the course of Muslim civilization in India from those in countries where the population is predominantly Muslim. The dissimilarity between two main elements [emphasis added] of Indo-Muslim civilization has resulted in a curious phenomenon. At times the attractions of the native element proved powerful, and there was a large-scale assimilation of indigenous elements, as under Akbar, Dara Shukoh, and in the writings of Kabir. At other times, there was a vigorous reaction against [[296]] non-Muslim elements, resulting in greater repugnance towards them than was traditional in the history of Islam. In this connection, it is significant that puritanical Wahhabism, with its emphasis on the purity of Islam, had considerable influence in India….
    The local situation has resulted in a fundamental conflict [on one side Aurangzeb, Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi, Iqbal; on the other, joining Akbar and Kabir mentioned above, Amir Khusrau, Dara Shukoh, Shah Wali Ullah, and Ghalib. The latter group, Ikram wrote, represent] broad sympathies, deep humanity, and liberal views. This [fundamental conflict]  has resulted in tensions and occasionally in conflicts, but outside somewhat narrow circles, the long-term result of two heterogeneous elements constituting Indian Islam has been a growth of forbearance and toleration of conflicting practices and beliefs.

        Let it be said at the outset that Ikram was a member of the Pakistan Civil Service, and by his appreciation of his second set of figures was distinguishing himself from the classic “Pakistani” genealogy that favored those purported to be the strict Muslims, from Mahmud of Ghazna to Aurangzeb to Jinnah. His overview is in many ways nuanced and insightful. But he shared with the more simplistic nationalist historians the view, as he put it, “of two heterogeneous elements,” one native and one Islamic. Both in India and outside, the categories and the narratives of the colonial, and subsequently nationalist, historiography that laid the foundation for this understanding still serve as the implicit framework not only of history but of the humanities and social sciences as well as general public opinion as they deal with India.  We teach courses on "civilization;" we emphasize classical texts to explain enduring continuities to being "Hindu" or "Muslim;"  we attribute explanatory value to these essences in historical settings; and we extrapolate from them to bounded sociological categories (Ludden 1994). What seems an intuitive knowledge of what is “Islam” and what is “Hinduism” is often in fact extrapolation from a contemporary world of politicized religious identities into the past.

        I want to focus on Ikram’s thesis that Indic Islam consists of two heterogeneous elements. The object of study then becomes the “conflicts, tensions, and assimilation” of  “Islam” in relation to the numerically predominant non-Muslim population. At times, in this formulation, “Islam,” raised or comes to raise barriers around itself and remains distinctive.Or it “assimilates” and shows itself to be truly Indian, maybe not even Islamic. To the extent that scholars have accepted the initial premise, and are interested in the latter variation, they have turned above all to studies of Sufism. And in those studies, metaphors like “syncretism” and “assimilation” have been particularly strong.

        I’d like to review some of the work on Muslims in the Indian sub-continent that engage the metaphor of  “syncretism,” based as it is on the assumption that there are indeed “two heterogeneous elements” and, in the term “syncretism,” some kind of mixture of these two distinctive essences. To do that, then, I’d like to describe a half-dozen scholarly projects of recent decades, all of them engaging with Sufis and Sufi shrines, which are taken as the critical site of “syncretism” and assimilation. I start with an overview of this issue from Peter van der Veer, whose work is grounded in both textual and anthropological sources.

        As Van der Veer notes, the term “syncretism” has long been used as a straightforward description of certain kinds of ritual practices or beliefs. It is, however, to reiterate the point made above, in fact embedded in notions of difference and identity. Moreover – and this may be his most important point – the use of the term “syncretism” always lays a claim on power, the power to assert that there is, and that one can identify, “true” religion, now compromised or enhanced, but none the less changed, by admixture. Those labeling practices as “syncretic” may identify these practices as enhanced, typically on the grounds that they promote “tolerance;” or they may judge them to be “false,” on the grounds that they compromise pure faith, and, as a corollary, entail  a loss of identity.

          When competing religious traditions emerged in Europe with the challenge of the Protestant reformation, one response was the absolute state; another response, the successor to the absolute state, the secular state in which religious difference was depoliticized. The focus in such a state is on national culture, not religion, a focus Americans are familiar with in terms of the metaphor of the “melting pot” and, subsequently, “multiculturalism” and the parading of difference. India entered nationhood with significant colonial legacies, not least the institutionalization of difference in religiously-defined personal law codes, and reservations for backward and scheduled castes and tribes. The new secular state presented itself as even-handed in relation to religion, an arbiter who transcended various communities.

        At the level of elite nationalism, this role was undergirded by an ideology, formulated on the part of Nehru in particular, as well as others who posited a “tolerant” “Indian civilization” that included Ashoka and Akbar among its heroes. Gandhi’s version of this ideology hewed closer to Vivekananda in seeing Hinduism’s “spirituality” as the key to that “tolerance.” The complement of this nationalist ideology was that there is a “folk” or “popular” religion at the grassroots that is also “plural” and “tolerant.” A thinker like Ashish Nandy, for example, romanticizes what he imagines as the traditional faith of the masses, “the people,” in contrast to the ideologues who incite religious violence. This emphasis may risk the interpretation that the “popular” practices in the case of Muslims are not “really” Islamic at all, but a Hindu sub-stratum that Islam does not reach – a kind of archaeological model in which the real foundation of culture is “Hindu” or “Hindutva.” Such a stance effectively denies any religious difference; it denies any agency to the people. Explicitly, however, someone like Nandy seeks to make an intervention in public life by blaming  the secular state for destroying the old way of life, both through its modernizing projects and through its connivance with the Hindu right.

        Whether explicitly or not, those who have focused on what a recent volume calls the “lived experience” of Muslims in India have embraced for the most part this vision of popular syncretism. In a celebrated debate in the 1980s, those emphasizing syncretism as against those who did not seemed to divide between anthropology, led by Imtiaz Ahmad (who was responsible for an important series of edited volumes on South Asian Muslims published in the 1970s and early 1980s) on one side; and history, the position articulated by Francis Robinson and to some extent Gail Minault, on the other. Robinson (1983) saw Ahmad’s stance as more political than academic, attributing his argument to his wish to show that Indian Muslims had their roots deep in Indian society and that they were good and loyal citizens. For Imtiaz Ahmad it was axiomatic that “the Islamic theological and philosophical precepts and principles on the one hand and local, syncretic elements on the other” are integrated in Indian Islam (1981:14), whereas Robinson emphasized a long-term trend precisely to strip Islam of what Ikram had called “native” features. The sociologist Veena Das joined the discussion with a passionate response to Robinson suggesting that he favored repressive Islamic regimes, a position that made clear the political stake in a purportedly academic discussion.

        A recent collection of essays, Lived Islam in South Asia: Adaptation, Accommodation and Conflict (Delhi: Social Science Press, 2004), edited in fact by Imtiaz Ahmad along with Helmut Reifeld, makes clear the political importance of a focus on “adaptation, accommodation, and conflict.” As Reifeld explained in the introduction, after 9/11 “[i]t seemed to us… extremely important to dispel [the connection of Islam to violence]… and try to counterbalance negative stereotypes….” (vii-viii). The essays are largely anthropological and are focused primarily – as those studies focused on presenting a gentle and Indic Islam typically are – on Sufism, devotionalism, and shrines. These are deemed to partake of sacred spaces and styles of religiosity shared across religious boundaries. There are essays on Gujarati Imamshahi-s (Dominique-Sila Khal), Gujarati Sidi-s (Helene Basu), the Madari Brotherhood (Ute Falasch), and the Jailani Sufi Shrine in Sri Lanka (Dennis McGilvray). Other essays take up shared Hindu-Muslim shrines in Karnataka (Yoginder Sikand), Shi`a women’s devotionalism in Hyderabad (Diane D’Souza), and the Rishi tradition of Kashmir (Mohammad Ishaq Khan). An article on nationalist discussions of the languages of  “Hindi,” “Hindustani,” and “Urdu” (Asha Rani) also raises issues of what is understood as religious mixture. As Reifeld explains, the volume is intended to “concentrate on syncretic and liminal positions as well as accommodation of Islam in South Asia” (ix). The authors not only want to show what they take to be a softer side of Islam than that often portrayed, but they also share a liberal preoccupation to assert that Muslims have a place in India. This is also the point of three theoretical articles  that open the volume (by Peter Gottschalk, Shail Mayaran, and Jackie Assayag). Thus Peter Gottschalk argues that Islam in India has “roots” and should not be identified with its places of origin, its “routes” (p.10). The jacket design, featuring what appears to be a possessed woman and a holy man bending over her, signals the kinds of experiences and settings the book as a whole takes not only as a corrective to “misconceptions” about Islam (vii), but as key to the reality of Islam in India.

        This approach poses two problems. Does the devotionalism primarily associated with Sufism in fact exhaust the central dimension of Muslim Indians’ history of worship, ritual, guidance, ethics, and all that we subsume under our typical definitions of “religion”? Surely any study of historical Islam in India needs to engage the treasured texts, the great learned tradition, the quest to live by moral guidelines, the rituals of everyday life, the life cycle ceremonies, and the sacred events of the calendrical year that thread through, and may even structure, many individual Muslim Indian lives. It needs to take into account political thought, and the fact that in India today “Islam,” like “Hinduism,” is an identity in public life, whether it means the texts about Indian history in Urdu-medium schools in Maharashtra or the anxieties  of parents in Gujarat that their toddlers not say “ammi” in public (Veronique Benei; Jan Bremen). It is also the conviction that the symbol of Muslim personal law must stand, so that the largest demonstration of Muslims since Independence focused on that issue. Thus court cases on such issues as marriage, divorce, and inheritance engage the most intimate dimensions of personal life, and, notably in cases on waqf property, legislate fundamental practices and hallmarks of identity. Fatwas, letters, pamphlets, and today television programs, invoke sacred texts to provide everyday guidance on every aspect of daily life. Texts do not exist apart from the contexts that utilize them, and they are not only the purview of the elites. All the themes and topics I note here are as much a part of local expressions of Islam, the topic of the anthropological essays I’ve noted here, as are devotional practices.

        There seems to be a scholarly anxiety about a scriptural or textual Islam in India – one of the sides of Ikram’s heterogeneous essences. It emerges in these studies, in fact, as implicitly problematic – rigid, intransigent, “foreign”-oriented. This mentality, I believe, implicitly underlies the attempt to find an alternative Islam. Thus, arguably, a second problem with the volume’s approach is not only that it excludes a wide range of practices and institutions, but that, ironically, the singling out of “syncretism” reinforces the image of an (unspoken) separate, non-Indian, negative “Islam.” As noted above, this emphasis may feed into a Hindutva notion that Muslims are really Hindu. It more clearly risks the assumption, evident especially in the introduction, that Muslims who preserve the scholarly tradition stand outside what is Indian. Such assumptions need to be treated not as a fact but as a stance that needs to be historicized and contextualized.

        Van der Veer’s insight that the use of the term “syncretism” is inevitably political precisely calls for attention to the term’s usage as part of historically specific contestations. Let us turn – half way through – to the first of the half-dozen specific studies I said I’d mention, in this case to describe a project that does indeed understand that “syncretic” is part of the subject matter, not a term of analysis.

        Ute Falasch’s study of Madari Sufis is based both on field work and on historical texts. The Madari Sufis would indeed appear to fit the category of syncretic, with the implication of “adaptation” to Hinduism, “be-shar`” (i.e. “non-shari`at) heterodoxy, and so forth, not least because of the wandering Malangs associated with them. But as Falasch cogently argues, these descriptions must in themselves be historicized as produced by colonialists, modern reformers – and academics who followed their lead. In the pre-colonial period, she demonstrates, the Islamic intelligentsia criticized the Madari not as Hindu, not even as deviant – simply as less cultivated (be-adab). The fact, for example, that they adopted Yogic breathing techniques was never regarded by critics as in any sense problematic “Hindu” practices. (This was the also the case in relation to the better known order of Chishtis – whom I’ll mention in a project below – who adopted Yogic practices in much the same way, to an equally non-controversial response.) Ironically, moreover, these Madari Sufis, so readily labeled today to the contrary, have always cultivated Islamic textual guidance, so that the gap between “sufi” and “scholar” is not the sociologically distinct one scholars and others often imagine. Indeed, Falash suggests that it was British officials, ever suspicious of wanderers (and not least when the Madari Malangs joined a revolt against the Company), who set the pattern of labeling such groups as “be-shar`,” an approach that modern reformers themselves would follow. The conclusion to be drawn from this account is that if at some point, some  Muslims choose to claim an authoritative stance that labels others as deviant, that must be taken as part of the ethnographic data, not as some “scientific” labeling – whether it be done by the state, other Muslims, or the academy.   A category like “syncretic” is historically contingent and ever shifting.

        Aside from problematizing the very term “syncretic,” Falasch points to the larger issue that recent generations of scholars have examined, to get beyond the politicized issues endemic to the field: namely, the false dichotomies of text and practice / high and low / great and little / elite and folk, and so forth. A false dichotomy imputes a distinction between Sufis and those learned in texts. A second false dichotomy is the labeling of a range of practices as necessarily “Hindu,” when they may simply be shared and local. Falasch also signals the importance of a method: letting the subjects of one’s study speak. In this case, she brings fresh insights to field work by her study of Persian Sufi texts, colonial documents, and contemporary contestations about truth.

        Now, on to brief comments about the work of several other scholars that help, even if one limits the discussion to Sufis, in getting out of the “syncretism” box.

        I might begin with my own study of Deoband, published almost a quarter of a century back. I came to the topic of a new kind of modern organization for transmitting Islamic learning in the colonial period out of a desire to challenge the notion that only the Westernized who knew a metropolitan language were engaged, in the colonial period, in projects of intellectual and social reform. But in the course of my study of the scholarly leadership, I learned two things relevant to the issue of syncretism. One, made real through reading letters, notebooks, volumes of charms, and records of dreams of these Islamic scholars, was the extent to which they were immersed in the initiatory chains, disciplinary practices, and traditions generally of the Sufi orders. They were holy men as well as scholars, and their influence derived from both these roles. They were, to be sure, reformers, and part of that reform extended to issues surrounding the Sufi tomb shrines. But they couched their opposition to certain practices in terms of basic morality – avoiding display, showing off, eschewing doctrinal error (shirk, bida`, imputing partners to God) – not in terms of following Hindu practice. Their targets were internal: misguided Sufis, the Shi`a. Moreover, to the extent they were devoted to the elders, traveled to their tombs, invoked stories of their holiness, and so forth, they themselves cherished the tombs. As my former student Warren Fusfeld pointed out, moreover, in relation to the l9th century Delhi Naqshbandis, they did so on the grounds that this was their tradition, never with the argument that such practices were conducive to harmony with Hindus. They followed these practices because they were continuous with a sanctified past (1987). It continues to fascinate me that so much of colonial-period Islamic reform is intra-Muslim – yet the scholarly common sense that it must be anti-Hindu, drawing lines between Hindus and Muslims, always prevails.

        To turn to a third project, one that focused on figures whose primary identity is as Sufis, Richard Eaton’s two major books on Bijapur and Bengal are centrally important; here the sources range from the textual to the environmental/ecological. One point of the Bijapur book is that Sufis, like Yogis, may well be warriors. Another is that, mesmerized as outsiders may be by saying what is Hindu and what is Muslim, people themselves may not be. I quote Willie Dalrymple, simply because he is so engaging, summarizing part of Eaton’s Bijapur book:

    One Bijapuri production of the period, for example, was the Bangab Nama, or the Book of the Pot Smoker, written by Mahmud Bahri – a sort of medieval Indian Allen Ginsberg. The book is a long panegyric to the joys of cannabis: 
"Smoke your pot and be happy –
Be a dervish and put your heart at peace. 
Lose your life imbibing this exhilaration."
    In the course of this book, Bahri writes: "God's knowledge has no limit... and there is not just one path to him. Anyone from any community can find him." This certainly seems to have been the view of Bijapur's ruler, Ibrahim Adil [Shah] II. Early in his reign, Ibrahim gave up wearing jewels and adopted instead the rudraksha rosary of the sadhu. In his songs he used highly Sanskritised language to shower equal praise upon Saraswati, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Sufi saint Gesudaraz of Gulbarga. 
    Perhaps the most surprising passage occurs in the 56th song where the Sultan more or less describes himself as a Hindu God: "He is robed in saffron dress, his teeth are black, the nails are red... and he loves all. Ibrahim whose father is Ganesh, whose mother is Saraswati, has a rosary of crystal round his neck... and an elephant as his vehicle….
    This creative coexistence finally fell victim, not to a concerted communal campaign by Muslim states intent on eradicating Hinduism, but instead to the shifting alliances of Deccani diplomacy [emphasis added]. 
This last is the important point, and as Falasch warns us, our labels are one thing, the labels of people of the time may well be another.

        From the Bengal material, I would like to point to one particular document studied by Eaton, the late-16th-century Bengali Nabi Bamsa (“The Family of the Prophet”) of Saiyid Sultan, that makes the major Hindu deities into successive prophets preceding such figues as Adam, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Rather than see this as “syncretic,” Eaton points out that it replicates the classical sira literature, like that of the 8th-century Ibn Ishaq, which claimed Judaism and Christianity as the heritage of Islam, just as Saiyid Sultan claimed the pre-modern heritage of Bengal. For Saiyid Sultan, God was Prabhu and Niranjan, nabi-s were understood as avatars, each Veda was a prophetic book.  For Saiyid Sultan and his readers, his was a profoundly Islamic book (288).

        Another example of how misleading essentialist distinctions can be comes from the work of Carl Ernst. Ernst has for some time been studying the Amritakunda, the Pool of Nectar, which for centuries has been available in multiple versions and translations unto Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and Urdu, making known to Muslim readers practices of the Nath Jogis and the teachings of hatha Yoga: breath control through each nostril, summoning of yoginis, meditations on the cakra centers accompanied by recitation of Sanskrit mantras (31). He notes that technical terms like mantra, yantra (diagram), and cakra are not mentioned, though the phenomena are described at length; they are subordinated to Islamicate categories and represented by Arabic terms: zikr, shakl, mawda (place); yoga is replaced by riyada, asceticism. The interest in these texts was wholly practical, or technical, and did not generally engage with philosophical issues. The Sufis and the Yogis shared overlapping interests, competed for recognition, shared such customs as burial, were both patronized by the Mughals. Yet, and this is a crucial point, there is clearly always a recognition of difference, of distinction, even competition, between Sufis and Yogis – clearly not obliteration of difference, in some purported middle space, through such interaction. Again, there is no reason to assume that those engaged with this text saw it as part of “accommodation” or “syncretism.”

        Another (5th!) example of study of what might be labeled a liminal or syncretic expression is the shrine in Bahraich of Ghazi Miyan, a wholly legendary figure alleged to be the nephew of the arch-villain of nationalist history, Mahmud of Ghazni – a villain because in the nationalist imagination, all conquest was unjust. Shahid Amin’s recent ambitious work on this site and figure challenges a critical valance of the “syncretic” theme by the simple fact of insisting that one must recognize violence in the world of Muslims, including the world of Muslim saints, not least in the case of someone whose very title, “Ghazi,” points to that military role. Amin looks at folklore, contemporary popular histories, and a hagiography from 1600 (centuries after this figure was said to have lived). As Amin points out, historians have countered the anti-Muslim story of conquest by stressing the mystics. He quotes the great Aligarh historian Muhammad Habib, who saw the Sufis as following “the footsteps of their great Hindu predecessors,” and even being enrolled among the Hindu rishis. Amin wants to hold on both to the fact that “these shrines attract both Hindus and Muslims as devotees,” and to what he calls “our vaunted syncretism.” He simply wants to add that conflict goes into shaping it; it is part of the process. Syncretism without conflict, as he puts it, “leaves the field of sectarian strife as the special preserve of … ‘communal’ historians.”

        Amin therefore retells the story of Ghazi Miyan’s conquests, his claim to turn Bharaich into a sacred Islamic site instead of a place for the unbelievers. But he also tells the story of Ghazi Miyan with what he calls Indian tropes: he was someone who restricted his acceptance of cooked food, chewed betel, stressed cleanliness and pure garments and fragrances, and was especially attached to the mahua tree.
When Amin turns to the ballads still sung, the stories are above all of barren women seeking male offspring, the story of Ghazi Miyan’s own mother, who then sees her son die on the day intended to be his marriage day (an episode not mentioned in the l7th-century story). He dies because Jaso Rani, (recalling Jashoda, Krishna’s foster mother), arrives with the word that they have lost cows and lives to the treacherous Raja Sohal Deo. Ghazi Miyan responds to the cry of ‘save the cows’ and is martyred, as Amin puts it, “in the cause of Cows/Islam.” In the written versions from the 16th and l9th centuries, the trope becomes the unmarked “cattle”, mawashi, but not so in the oral accounts. This story stands in contrast to the texts that Hindu revivalists from the Arya Samaj onward have written about Ghazi Miyan, trying to wean Hindus from his shrine: there Ghazi Miyan is only a Muslim, an iconoclast, an eater of cows. Amin, in contrast, wants to save the story of a “Sword of Islam” who is simultaneously a protector of herdsmen and women and their cows – a story in which  the herdsmen do not, to be sure, become Muslims, but they do become devotees. Amin has collected wonderful material, but one element is missing: what exactly brings those devotees.

        In concluding these thoughts on the “syncretic,” I return to van der Veer – my final story – and his material about a Gujarati Rifa’i tomb (published in the Journal of Asian Studies  in the 90s). What is interesting about this study is that it includes extensive material on the Hindus who frequent the shrine, an element missing, for example, from the Amin study of Ghazi Miyan. At this tomb in Surat, the `urs is widely attendend, and it is understood as a day of powerful blessing. The descendant of the saint replaces the cover on the tomb and smears it with sandalwood. The disciples play with swords and pierce themselves, part of their practices toward inducing ecstatic experiences. Hindus are in fact the majority of those in attendance, not least because these practices have come into question on the part of many Muslims. But the Hindus who come do so on their own terms. They call the shrine a Samadhi (a Hindu saint in meditation), not a dargah. They do not participate in the activities inducing a trance or hal. They cultivate no relationship with the living descendant of the saint, and thus have no exposure to the discourse of Sufism. They do not join the Rifa’i who combine their procession with congregational prayer, the descendant of the saint serving as imam (so that for the Muslims present, the tomb does not exist in isolation from other Islamic practices).

        The Hindus attribute power to the saint, but do so specifically in relation to illnesses – above all, to misfortunes caused by spirits. For them, Muslims are held to be closer to a world of spirits and demons, and able to master it, like untouchables, who can also be specialists in exoricism. Saint worship is for them in that sense a lower and impure practice. There is no evidence of any conversion to Islam, nor of participation in any of the dimensions of the Sufi tradition other than healing and magic; nor, given the tensions about Islam, would they even talk of possible substantial influence on non-Muslims.

        This review of several projects in the general field of Indo-Muslim studies is, I hope, suggestive of productive approaches generated by scholars in recent decades in relation to a central theme in the study of Islam in India, namely the persistent fascination with what is taken to be “syncretism.” By now, roughly four decades into the fostering of “area studies” in the U.S. and increased interest in India in Europe, scholars are working in a wide range of languages – Gujarati, Urdu, Bengali, as well as Arabic, Persian, and English, in the sources represented in the projects described above. Moreover, there is much more familiarity with the relative importance of various texts. Ernst argues, for example, that in terms of sheer numbers, few pre-colonial manuscripts in the field of Sufism match the Amritakunda, which was so widely copied and circulated. Al-Biruni's work, unparalleled as it is for knowledge of Ghaznavid court culture, was of little interest, Ernst points out, within India itself: it was virtually uncopied, and came to prominence only in colonial times.

        In several cases, it is the juxtaposition of field work with textual sources that yields productive results. Arguably, no change has been more important for the study of religion generally than this move from the wholly textual to the ethnographic. Working in such a broad range of sources, focusing on concrete cases, these projects have shown the limits of the term “syncretic” as a category of analysis – even while the division created by contemporary politicized identities, which label symbols and material objects of every kind as Hindu or Muslim, coupled with a desire to overcome this very division, makes the use of the term virtually irresistible.

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